Monday, June 04, 2012

The Month That Was - May 2012

The Month That Was - May 2012: I remain extraordinarily busy in my day job, which I will never discuss on principle. And I got practically zero writing done, which must change. And I got no travel in at all, which also must change. What I got done was alot of yardwork and lawn mowing.

I can't really complain about it. When I bought this house it was (among the more normal reasons) to intentionally take me out of my comfort zone; to understand what it was like to deal with all facets of home ownership. And though I gripe, it's been wholly positive, and a remarkable learning experience, just one that makes me curse regularly.

But summer is here, with it the light to 10PM. If I can confine myself to mowing the lawn every ten days or so, I should have enough time to actually do something -- to reclaim vestiges of my old carefree life. That sound you hear is God laughing.

[Books] Book Look: Leaving the Atocha Station
[Health and Fitness, Science] In My Genes
[TV] The Good, The Bad, and The Redhead
[Health and Fitness] The Un-running Man
[Good Links] Curious Linkage

[Books] Book Look: Leaving Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Book Look: Leaving Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner: Let me state outright that I like this book and enjoyed reading it. I want to make that clear because I'm going to say a lot of things that may sound disparaging, especially concerning peripheral topics. But this is a good book. Nicely written. Engaging in its own way.

This is story of a young American poetry student living on an arts fellowship in Madrid. He engages in the usual idiotic activities of youth along with equally idiotic young Spaniards -- the political and sexual posing; drugs and laziness and calculated disaffection. It's standard coming of adulthood stuff. If you've read Apple Pie (and you have, haven't you?) you've gotten my take on it. You could go all back to F. Scott and This Side of Paradise for that matter. In fact, when you include the expat American in Europe themes of Fitzgerald's other work you could see a good deal commonality here, if Lerner's lead character wasn't such a wuss.

The lead's primary struggle is with authenticity. His poetry is manufactured not inspired, but everybody seems to think it's something special. He lies without truly understanding why he lies, eventually realizing that life is often a stack of lies which you try to keep re-sorting in order to present yourself to your advantage. His inauthentic haunts him, making him feel half alive. Later, in the face of the terrorist bombing of the Madrid subway, he sees that everyone reacts tangentially, taking actions that they would have taken anyway and that are to the benefit of their self-image, but with the sudden sense that they are more real. Eventually he comes to a quasi-resolution that if everything is inauthentic, inauthenticity in itself is authentic. Kind of wishy-washy, but so is life and youth.

There are a lot of red flags, though. First, the story is at least somewhat autobiographical. Lerner, according to the book cover, is a poet whom spent some time in Spain on a fellowship. So we have a writer writing about a writer. That generally means that your audience is probably other writers, so it's not surprising that our lead ruminates and ponders the living hell out of absolutely everything. Lerner uses his poet's word skills to keep it intriguing, but honestly, the 958th time he would go twisting some trivial event into metaphysical significance I had to skip ahead a bit.

So it was decent read, but not really moving. What I really want to talk about is the blurbs on the cover. It's a reasonably well-known fact that cover blurbs are a matter of who you know, not who's read your book. Author's regularly pass along cover blurbs to friends or at the publisher's request, with the general expectation that the favor will be returned when the time comes. As such, I've learned to ignore them completely. It's interesting that even writers who would take a stridently principled stand against crass commercialism engage in this practice, which just goes to show how malleable our ethics are when self-interest raises its eyebrows.

Anyway, the blurbs on Leaving Atocha Station are really quite rich.

"A beautiful novel...not like anything I can remember." That's about as nondescript as they come, and not a little intentional uncertainty there -- meaning nothing specific about the work. This from the only person who could conceivably pass as a popular mainstream novelist, Jonathan Franzen. Not to be snarky, but this blurb sounds like it was written by Frazen's personal assistant. Or maybe some kind of review-bot.

"One of the truest (and funniest) novels I know of by a writer of his generation." -- Lorin Stein, NY Review of Books. Well it is certainly true in the sense of being heavily autobiographical and a good capture of young, pretentious idiots in search of authenticity. But it's not really that funny.

"A subtle, sinuous, and very funny first novel...Lerner is attempting to capture something the most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and "conflict" fail to do." -- James Wood, the New Yorker. It's not that funny. Geez. And yes, it's short and quick reading, and without a lot of extraneous garbage -- a positive quality in a book, but not a new invention. See: P.G. Wodehouse.

"Flip, hip, smart, and very funny." -- Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air. IT'S NOT THAT FUNNY. Good grief.

"An extraordinary novel about the intersection of art and reality in contemporary life." - John Ashberry. While those things are hinted at in the novel, it's really more about -- and I may have mentioned this -- young people acting like pretentious idiots in search of authenticity. But this one is my favorite because here is a quote from the novel's lead character.
...This strange experience of reading, the sense of harmony between rhythms of a reproduction and the real...this was what I valued in one of the only people I described as a "major poet" without irony, John Ashberry.
That's so, so, so rich. The book features a blurb from a guy the book praises. Dear Mr. Ashberry, I just wrote a book where I describe you as "one of the only people I would call a 'major poet' without irony." Any chance I can get a blurb? Now that's funny. A novel about authenticity as performance art commentary on authenticity. Do you suppose that's what everyone is talking about?

Should you read Leaving Atocha Station? Won't hurt ya. I can't imagine anyone truly hating the book. But there is a pile of stuff in there that only a writer could like. It's worth scanning the Amazon preview before you buy.

[Health and Fitness, Science] In My Genes

In My Genes: I had my DNA genotyped. What that means is I paid a company to look for markers in my DNA that are known to relate to certain traits. Here's how it works: You hit a site called, send them money and they send you a little vial into which you spit. You enclose the vial into the supplied shipping material and then a couple of weeks later, you DNA has been read. Somewhat more robust than the gypsy palm reader over the pawn shop. You get extensive, and password protected, results online.

And really there is an astounding list of the results. Everything from disease susceptibility, carrier likelihood, miscellaneous traits, ancestry -- just a ton of interesting things you can learn about yourself.

Of course, you have to be careful about interpretation or you could be misled. Let's say the results suggest you have an elevated propensity to contracting Disease X. First you need to understand what that means. It means that when scientists looked at a certain population, people with specific genetic attributes showed a higher propensity for attracting Disease X. Note that it does not mean you have the genes that cause the disease. It is just a correlation that was observed, that's all. It could be like the relationship between eating ice cream and crime. (Old saw: There is a correlation between the amount of ice cream sold and crime. An unsophisticated person might conclude that eating ice cream is a cause of crime, but in fact it is heat that causes both crime and ice cream sales to rise.)

Also, you need to understand how confident we are in the correlation is. 23andme does a good job of this, using a star system. For example, four stars may mean multiple independent experiments have verified the correlation, two stars might mean that it was seen in one experiment but another was inconclusive, etc.

Then you need to understand the severity of the results. For example it could be that Disease X typically appears in .1% of the population, but in people with your profile it shows up in .2%. That's a 100% increase, but still a very trivial probability of attracting it.

Lastly, you have to understand that most things have both a genetic and environmental component. Personal example: my results indicate an elevated susceptibility to lung cancer. This is fascinating since there has never been any in my family that I am aware of, but the fact of the matter is that lung cancer risk for people who have never smoked is small so even though I have an elevated risk from a strictly genetic standpoint, from a holistic standpoint I'm still unlikely to get struck. In this case environment trumps genetics. (Note: Scientifically speaking, I may have just jinxed myself.)

Judging from the discussion boards at the site, the understanding of probability and correlation by the broader public is a well nigh non-existent. Tiny increases in probability are seen as definitive reasons for events that are more likely happenstance. Even a minor, unsubstantiated increase in risk is given as the source of a relative getting afflicted. I am convinced that instead of geometry and trigonometry, after you have your multiplication tables down, math education should focus on probabilities and statistics.

Anyway, although I found my results fascinating, I didn't see anything that will alter my life at all. It is possible that something along those lines could turn up, and more importantly if I were a parent or starting a family I would absolutely get tests done on myself and my spouse and children, just in case something turned up. Yes, it's a long shot, but it would be worth the comfort factor.

They also can, at your option, keep your results on file and use it to match up against any new or updated research going forward. I have no idea whether anything useful will come of it for me personally, but given that I have gene markers indicating a propensity for longevity, I'm pretty sure I'll find out.

[TV] The Good, The Bad, and The Redhead

The Good, The Bad, and The Redhead: This season of Mad Men has been truly epic. Honestly, there are moments that will be discussed for years to come. Let's name some:
  • Zou Bisou Bisou
  • The elevator shaft
  • Orange Sherbet
  • Sally is a mean drunk
  • You only need three cats, then you're done.
  • Don Draper, plumber
  • Fat Betty
  • Roger's trip
  • Tomorrow Never Knows
It makes me sad to realize that we are almost at the end of the season. Another episode this season, then the last season of Breaking Bad, then the final season of Mad Men, and thus will end the great golden age of TV that started thirteen years ago. There is nothing remotely approaching that level of quality on the horizon (although Luck had promise -- stupid HBO).

The most striking thing about this season for me is that it has really shown how my interpretation of the character Joan is 180 degrees off from just about everyone else's. Most seem to see her as a sympathetic victim. To me it looks like she started up with Roger again, got pregnant, knowingly passes the baby off as her husband's, whom she righteously tosses to the curb over his career choice, then most recently, prostitutes herself to become a partner in the company. Thinking back to season 1, she was a haughty, power-drunk, martinet to her underlings in the office while sleeping with the junior partner for the sake of money and influence. She's a horrible person. She is as much of a cutthroat mercenary as any of the men that everyone derides, but she gets a pass in the hearts of the fans. Why? I guess rack has its privilege.

[Health and Fitness] Un-running Man

Un-running Man: Last month I was lamenting my running performance, all worried that I had suffered a performance backslide and had peaked and that my life was over and so forth. So to recapture my mojo I did a local 5k in a lovely old neighborhood called Burns Park. I did well -- ran at a 8:20 pace which is about my second best 5k pace (here the strong runners are laughing since that's a slow jog for them) and so felt a lot better. Now there is one more race -- the Dexter-Ann Arbor Half Marathon -- then no races for the summer as I focus on biking and swimming for cardio. {Update - I just completed said Dx-AA half. Personal best. Ending the season on a high note.}

More importantly I need to get back to lifting weights more frequently since I am getting weaker by the day from all this running and lawn cutting and fretting over trees and shrubs and flowers.

Next planned race will be in September up on Mackinac, assuming I don't break down and sign up for a good cause between now and then.

[Good Links] Curious Linkage

Curious Linkage: The now apparently regular feature wherein you get to read what I liked:

A great description of how movies are changing to be more like their more successful little brother, TV.

If you are really pissed off at your significant other it can be very satisfying to dump all her stuff out of a truck in the middle of the Vegas strip. Of course, you can also expect to get promptly arrested. Good times. I miss Vegas.

How to bet sports online. This is a good and accurate guide, that doesn't cover up or overstate the potential risks. Doesn't make me miss Vegas any less, though.

Hej da to lifelong Red Wing Nik Lidstrom. If I had a fantasy career as a pro athlete, it would look a lot like his and end with me being thought of as well as he, both professionally and personally.